The Interview Project: Kate Cortesi

Interview by Will Arbery
April 21, 2020

What fills your days? 

Reading. Mostly work by friends; their plays, poems and novels. A few TV pilots and movie scripts. I slogged through a very digressive Roberto Bolaño novel which was both rewarding and exhausting. But always central to his project is the very attentive read of his peers' work. He reads his friends like the masters and I try to do that too. The theater talent around us in this historical moment is staggering; it's such a gift to be growing my own craft in the midst of it, so I'm trying to be worthy of that gift. By being the reader the work deserves.

Writing. A lot of letters, actually, which I used to do all the time in high school and college. So I'm coming back to that habit. And a new play. Sort of. On the rare good day, a new play. Creatively, I'm pretty stuck most of the time but maybe once a week I touch the hem of the muse.

Family. For those of us with families at home, this time is 100% defined by those other particular people in the house. I've got two daughters and a spouse at home. There's a lot of cranking meals out and jump roping. Baking. Board games. I won't even front like I'm homeschooling them but we're having fun together. When I'm not losing my shit, that is, which is happening, too.

Yesterday we made the girls cook dinner, to mix it up, and they concocted not just a meal but a whole establishment. The Quarantine Cafe. On the menu was pizza, french fries and edamame. Frozen strawberries and whipped cream for dessert. One of the waitresses ate multiple bites of my dessert before serving me, though, so I stiffed her on the tip.

What is your relationship to work during crisis?

Ay, Will. What a question.

Okay, well, at the beginning, I was telling anyone who would listen to watch the stream of my play Love, which was shut down by the quarantine after six performances but was lucky enough to get captured. Video is not live theater, of course, of course, but it felt good to be able to advocate for a play when theaters were dark. I Zoomed in for three book groups who watched the play as a book group. Three! Will, these all female, intergenerational book groups gave me life. They are thoughtful and rigorous. So for a short while, I was still getting to live in the embrace of an audience, which was wonderful and kept me connected to that delicate thing we made, back in that other world.

But that's done now.

The TV industry is going hard on show development for obvious reasons right now, and I'm in the throes of that. Including some really fantastic opportunities! But to be honest, most days with that stuff, I feel like the lever that the lab rats hit to get another food pellet. I'm dispensing food pellets in a caged experiment, as opposed to, you know... writing. I'm doing it but it doesn't feel vital. So I try to return to this new play, to stay sane. My writer friend Chris Gabo said, "it's very optimistic of you to write a play right now." Optimistic? Or just... stubborn? Who knows. I'm not sure we get to choose what kind of writer we are.

What or who is inspiring you right now? What or who is beautiful?

Here's a link to my daughters performing the opening scene of my play Love, which I forced them to do as promotion for the play stream. Play promotion or narcissism diagnosis? You tell me. Actually, don't.

The Irene Fornes movie! I finally got to watch it. The Rest I Make Up. She's my patron saint of theater and life. That was great. And this poem "Elegy" by Aracelis Girmay, which was sent to me — in a letter! — from another beautiful poet, Safia Elhillo.

Elegy by Aracelis Girmay

What to do with this knowledge that our living is not guaranteed?

Perhaps one day you touch the young branch
of something beautiful. & it grows & grows
despite your birthdays & the death certificate,
& it one day shades the heads of something beautiful
or makes itself useful to the nest. Walk out
of your house, then, believing in this.
Nothing else matters.

All above us is the touching
of strangers & parrots,
some of them human,
some of them not human.

Listen to me. I am telling you
a true thing. This is the only kingdom.
The kingdom of touching;
the touches of the disappearing, things. 

What are you dreaming of making, once we can gather in rooms again?

Plays. Plays plays plays. I can't fucking wait.

The one I keep alluding to, the new one which is called Let's Pretend We're Married. It's about the life-saving power of fantasy born from longing and loneliness. (With jokes.) And another play I wrote, Is Edward Snowden Single? I'm dreaming of making Kate Cortesi's Complete Sentence In the Title plays.

What would you say to your younger self — the one without many connections in theater, the one without a Playwrights Horizons commission — if your younger self were confronting or considering a future as an artist during this time of tremendous uncertainty?

Reach out. Reach out to your friends who are doing this, too. Value them, nurture them, nurture yourself with them. Don't do this alone. We're not meant to do this alone. I made that mistake for so, so long. I didn't know we're supposed to create in community. Not just create. Dream! We're supposed to dream in community! Inspiration is contagious. Sorry, contagious is probably not the best word choice right now.


Kate Cortesi is the recipient of a Kate and Seymour Weingarten Commission.